To address these challenges, the Lagos State government established the Lagos State Consumer Protection Agency, LASCOPA, to address issues and complaints, arising from sales of substandard goods.
In this interview at the agency’s office, the General Manager, LASCOPA, Mr. Afolabi Solebo, explained to Ayodele Olalere, some of the measures being taken to curb the spread of substandard products and efforts to bring producers of such goods to book.
Since you have been in the office for the past two months, what were some of the challenges you have faced?
When it comes to the issue of challenges, I was properly trained by the Lagos State Ministry of Justice, as a counsellor. I have been around so many of the departments in the ministry. I started in the Directorate of Citizens Right; from there I proceeded to civil litigation where I was seconded as the head of the public advice centre. From there, I proceeded to the Directorate of Public Prosecution. I prosecuted in lots of cases. From there I was made the head of the legal unit, Lagos Sports Commission. I was also the registrar of land use charge appeal tribunal and was later appointed the General Manager of LASCOPA.
So, with the experience I have had in the Ministry and other places I have worked, coming to this agency is not new to me though it’s challenging.
The challenge is simple. What I met on ground is good but I believe it can be better. Talking about consumer education, we will still be going out to tell people what we expect of them. In this part of the world, when somebody is invited for alleged offence or crime, they will keep making calls here and there but it still boils down to the fact that the law has been breached and somebody that willingly breaks the law must face the consequences.
I know there will still be more challenges but from our own end, we will know how to manage them. Before you can call me that you sold expired products or substandard product, it means you don’t love your neighbour as yourself. People should desist from encouraging other people to do things that are contrary to the law. The law is there; ignorance of the law is no excuse. For you to go about selling expired products willingly means you know the law.
We are warning, if you know you want to sell expired products, take it out of Lagos State. If in any other place wants to condole it fine, but the era of that is over in Lagos.
If you know you have a product that is substandard, take it our of Lagos State. If we know, rather than you making profits for your business, you will be making losses because if at the end we find out those products are expired, we have the protection of the law to seize them as exhibits and dispose of them whichever way rather than allowing it get to the consumers.
If you buy a product, a new car for example, and not a used type, at least, you should enjoy it for four years. If you buy a brand new car and in the next year it’s giving a problem, it’s either they replace the vehicle or they refund the money.
We have done something like that. A woman bought a vehicle two years ago and it had issues. We told the company if they wanted us to go all-out, we would go to the public and give out their names and we let the public know what the company did. We did mediation and not only did they refund part of the woman’s money, we also made sure the company paid compensation.
There are so many other cases we have seen about other top car dealers. I have heard people say there is no consumer right but there is. If you come and lodge complaint, it has to be genuine because we do our own investigations. As a manufacturer, if you know you cannot go through the process of ensuring the product going out of your company is good for human consumption, don’t bring it out. Keep it in your company. If it’s going out to the people of the state and you want to kill people, you should be ready for the consequences.
You have representatives of Standard Organisation of Nigeria, SON and NAFDAC as board members. To what extent are you impressing on them to ensure they carry out their duties effectively?
Everybody has its job. They are on the board so they can rightly confirm to us when we have issues. They have their data to know if a company has done due diligence on a product. If a manufacturer has not done the needful with NAFDAC or SON, the agencies can rightly inform us. For being on the board, we rub minds.
Before a product can get out, it must have been certified fit by either MAN, SON, NAFDAC or other relevant agencies. If that is not the case, then the alleged offender would be made to face the music.
Apart from those agencies, we also have Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency, LASEPA, to do the verification. We have been working in conjunction with the agencies.
Every 15th of March is set aside for International Consumer Protection. What are your plans to mark the day?
We have plans for that day. I have asked heads of units and departments to come up with something. We will be doing more advocacy, lectures and enlightenment. We also intend to beef up our staff with relevant training and courses. You will see a vast improvement in the agency’s activities.
How key is mediation to this agency because it’s said it’s better to mediate that going to court?
To me as a trained mediator, even the court gives room for mediation, called ADR. Before you can take any matter to court, there is what is call pre-action steps. You must have taken steps to resolve the matter before bringing it to court. Even when the matter is in court, we have what is called Case Management Conference, CMC, where the court will assign the case. I know that the issue of amicable settlement and peaceful resolution of cases is now the in-thing. Even in criminal cases, the law still gives room for plea-bargain.
Mediation is very interesting. That’s when you want to bring parties together and see if the matter can be amicably resolved between them. When you bring parties together, you tell each of them how they can yield grounds for each other. It’s a win-win situation. Meditation goes a long way. Both parties must have come together and forgiven one another and moved on based on an agreement reached. We can only assist them to resolve because it’s not our case. It’s for the parties to agree and we don’t use force; we use mediation tactics and skills as mediators. We have been able to resolve so many cases except the ones that feel they have the right to proceed to court.
There are those in the rural areas who are yet to know their patents right. What are your plans to educate these ones?
We intend to have liaison offices in all local governments so we can bring consumer right protection closer to the people. If the matters are being reported at the local government, they will take it up. The ones they cannot resolve, they refer to us. We will be training more mediators that can go to the local governments on a particular day. We have a liaison office in Ikorodu. We are in the process of getting a space at the Lagos Island. So, everyone will not have to come to Allen Avenue to lodge a complaint.
At what level of complaints do you enforce compliance?
We have the monitoring and enforcement unit and we are protected by the law to enter anywhere. We can confiscate anything that is hazardous and expired.
Before enforcement can be carried out, the parties will be invited, except they fail to come and that is when we use the force. We have the right under the law to approach the court to seal the company and the person won’t be able to operate business again and then be forced to come.
It’s only when people come forward that we know places to go and the offender will face the consequences of his action. Apart from going out, we will also be making jingles in radios and some other outfit that are ready to collaborate with us. It’s not about me, it’s about everybody. Someone that is sick cannot govern a state or a local government. So, in order not to kill everybody, people should come forward and tell us what is happening in their neighbourhood.
To date, how many cases have you handled and how many have complied?
We have 602 that have complied. We have 94 that are yet to comply and we are working on them. In the last two years, we have received 2, 202 complaints, we have been able to resolve 204, and we have 107 ongoings. When it comes to the issue of refund, we have been able to refund a sum of N35 million to complainants that their rights had been infringed upon. With all these, we still have action plans and in the next few months, we will be out there doing the needful and still protecting consumers against hazardous products and services so that people can get value for their money.
What’s your message to Lagosians?
It’s only healthy citizens that can run the economy successfully. We will go to the ends of the earth to protect them as consumers. We will ensure that the Lagos State does not become a dumping ground for hazardous products. We want them to believe in us. We enjoin them to report to us or any of our liaison offices any instance of hazardous products. We have a mechanism in place where confidentiality can be protected so that when you report to us, you won’t have any reason to be afraid.
In carrying out our function, we are not arbitrary. We will investigate and mete out sanctions as provided under the law. I will urge all Lagosians to work with us to rig Lagos of all substandard products and services because we believe Lagosians are the best and they deserve the best.